Women of Color Navigating the Career Environment: Using Male Dominated Strategies to "FuelForward"

By Vonya Hodrick and Vivian Blade

The career environment is complex, with formal and informal processes and networks, as well as plenty of office politics. Yet, professional women of color are missing critical relationships to enable success in their careers. These women must have influencers in their network to help navigate this environment and to help pull them through the ranks.

It is crucial for women of color to create and maintain networks to advance their careers. Women in general tend to have smaller networks of deeper relationships, choosing to primarily have people in their networks who share their value system as compared to men who view their networks more opportunistically, often as a way to advance in their careers.

LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company (2018) found in their major new study— with almost 30,000 employees across 118 companies — that women’s odds of advancement are 15% lower than men’s. For women of color the disparity in the opportunities for advancement is even greater. One reason the study cites is that women and men have very different networks.

Another reason is often that women do not have equal time to build and nurture these relationships. For example, women still carry a disproportionate burden of housework, childcare and elder care responsibilities, leaving men with more time to develop relationships on evenings and weekends.

Men also have more time for what researchers Monica Forret & Thomas Dougherty (2001) found in a landmark study to be two of the most powerful networking strategies: increasing their profile inside their organization and participating in extracurricular professional development. Interestingly, these researchers found that these strategies influenced career advancement more for men than women. The likely explanation is that women had less time to engage in extracurricular activities or pitch themselves for time-consuming, visibility-enhancing assignments. The researchers also speculated that external networking was more effective for men because they had access to more powerful people to network with. These trends continue.

Like men, women of color should focus their networking on adding strategic relationships that can be influential to their career advancement. Building connections with mentors and sponsors is critical to career success. A mentor’s primary purpose is to assist with specific development areas. Likewise, a mentor often can help remove some of the mystery and frustration in navigating the work environment. Mentors can be senior to mentees, peers, or even subordinates that can help one understand the work environment, develop skills, and avoid career mistakes.

Although mentoring is crucial and important to one’s growth, these relationships alone are not enough to advance women’s careers. A key ingredient for moving up the pipeline that mentoring relationships often lack is social capital and influence. Sponsors provide that elevated level of support. Unlike a mentor, a sponsor is someone who can not only advise you on your career, but actively help advance it. They have power in an organization or community and stronger network influences. They can use this social capital and credibility to advocate for others.

What is the career practitioner’s role in supporting women of color in strengthening their networks, empowering them to move forward (or, as we like to say, FuelForward®) in their careers?

  • Begin with a clear understanding of career related relationships that are critical to women’s success, such as such as mentors, coaches and sponsors, and identify the gaps.
  • Determine the career and relationship barriers that women of color face in organizations and industries and assess how these barriers can be addressed or removed.
  • Build toolkits with strategies typical of both men and women. Do not be afraid to recommend an approach that may stretch women outside of their comfort zone. Be sure to carefully assess which approach may work best for the situation and the individual.
  • Finally, coach women of color on the importance of these career transforming relationships.
  • Share tools on how they can build these relationships into their strategic, career advancing networks. Engage an external career or executive coaching if additional one-on-one personalized support is needed.

For more details on these critical career relationships for women of color and tools for helping them build these relationships into their networks, please join us at the 2019 NCDA Global Career Development Conference in Houston, TX on Thursday June 27th for Roundtable #1-1



Forret, M. L. & Dougherty, T. W. (2001). Correlates of networking behavior for managerial and professional employees. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247738171_Correlates_of_Networking_Behavior_for_Managerial_and_Professional_Employees

Leanln.Org and McKinsey & Company (2018). Women of the workplace 2018. Retrieved from https://womenintheworkplace.com/

Ragins, B. R. & Kram, K. E. (2007). The handbook of mentoring at work: Theory, research, and practice (1st ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications, INC.



Vonya HodrickVonya R. Hodrick is the Founder of Holistic Healing Avenues, LLC and WellSource-Transcending Leadership and Personal Development. Vonya is a Success Life Coach, Licensed Professional Counselor and Social Worker. Vonya helps mid-career professionals, entrepreneurs, and professionals in the healthcare industry attain their highest potential through discovery and self-actualization. Vonya can be reached at vonya@wellsrc1.com.



Vivian BladeVivian Hairston Blade is a recognized talent and performance development expert, professional speaker and executive coach. She works with the world’s top companies to build a high performing inclusive leadership pipeline. Vivian is a published author (“FuelForward®: Discover Proven Practices to Fuel Your Career Forward”) and has many articles featured in numerous professional, industry and business publications. Vivian can be reached at vivian.blade@eiglconsulting.com.



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